Sorrowland is a gripping, insightful novel that combines the real and the fantastical, as an escapee from a separatist compound starts developing powers. Vern has spent as long as she remembers in a Black separatist religious compound, used to night terrors and being told she’s too willful. When she escapes one night into the woods she’s hunted, but discovers she is developing extra-sensory powers. Vern gives birth to twins and raises them in the woods, but she must leave the woods if she wants answers to the larger questions about what has happened to her and others, and what power led that to happen.
I wanted to read this book after the hype around it and Rivers Solomon, and it surpassed my expectations, drawing me into Vern’s world both on a character level and to think about the power structures and histories that cause medical experimentation and other horrors. Vern and her children Howling and Feral are memorable characters carefully constructed, especially around what Howling and Feral know and how they experience the world, having spent the first few years of their lives in the woods. The approach to gender in the book was another element that was particularly good, touching on lived experience of fluidity and its importance over labels.
Another notable thing about Sorrowland is that despite all of the horrors that occur and the importance of power structures and nations in causing that horror, there is also a focus on individual healing and survival. Vern and Gogo’s relationship, and the restorative qualities of being able to rely on other people rather than having to fight everything yourself, felt very crucial, bringing out ideas of community resistance.
Exploring both a personal rebellion and metamorphosis and larger structural abuse of groups of people, Sorrowland is a genre-defying novel that takes such a powerful approach towards resistance, gender, and who the monsters really are. I think it’ll be lingering with me for a long time.